Last week I wrote about how brilliant our community has been in supporting us in our grief. Outside this community so many other friends have also been absolutely fantastic. But I’ve also been uncomfortably aware that others haven’t, or at least it’s felt like they haven’t. It can feel like bereavement shines a stark and exposing light onto our friendships and reveals them for what they are – strong and dependable or fun-loving but essentially meaningless. I’ve started to realise that maybe this doesn’t make these friendships redundant – maybe different friends provide you with different things. As long as you’re getting all you need you don’t necessarily need to get everything from everyone. However, whatever kind of friend you are to somebody you really do need to do something when it comes to their grief. This post is me trying to explain why.
When something awful happens everyone feels at a loss for what to say. Words seem insignificant. People feel inadequate – they don’t have the right responses, they feel they don’t have the understanding or the empathy. But doing or saying nothing is a decision, just the same as the decision to do something, and it is decision that does not go unnoticed by the person in pain. People might think that when someone is experiencing something terrible they couldn’t possibly be aware of each individual response that goes on around them. And maybe in the first few days this is true; messages flood in and you lose track of who said what. But once the dust settles the gaps in response grow stronger: more evident and more steeped in meaning. They are dark, gaping holes engulfing the love that others have been at pains to show. I understand this sense of not knowing what to do or say. But silence is heard just as clearly as words. If you are a friend be aware that your silence can be experienced as hurtful. It gives the sense of being abandoned, of you not caring or not caring enough to bother. Not caring enough to attempt to overcome your awkwardness.
And though I understand where this comes from it still bewilders me. What do people think? That once I am well again I will return, good as new, and never mention the whole ugly affair? That nothing will ever be said that will force them to confront the terribleness of the situation, or the awkwardness that they feel about it? I find this hugely insulting and uncomfortable. I feel awkward about how to behave when I see people who’ve said nothing – have I essentially been denied permission to talk about this event, or my feelings around it? This is not just a single event in my life that will pass; this will change who I am forever. This is the most terrible thing I hope I will ever have to endure, and it does need recognition of some sort. I imagine that they too will feel awkward about seeing me for the first time. They haven’t said anything, so now they need to decide what to do. The normal ‘how are you?’ is suddenly dangerously loaded – almost impossible to ask, because the honest answer would require a very long and emotional response. If some contact had already been made it wouldn’t. It would be an update on a joint understanding of past agony.
As I say this, I anxiously look back on all the times my friends lost people they loved. What did I say? What did I do? Did I say at least something? Did I do enough? I realise now that no, I definitely did not do enough. I think I mostly said something, but in some situations I’m not even sure. I know that at a certain point I was told quite clearly by my Mum that in these situations you have to do something. I know that I needed that conversation, that I wouldn’t necessarily have arrived there myself.
Maybe you never had that talk with your Mum. Or maybe you did, but you still feel lost for what to do or say. Or maybe you know that something needs to be said but would feel more comfortable having some solid advice to base future interaction on. Grief is very personal so what has been helpful for me might not actually be helpful for others. But, based on my own experience, here is what I will be trying to do next time someone I care about is bereaved. It wouldn’t be a great situation if only the bereaved were able to help the bereaved, so I thought it would be worth me sharing my own insights.
- Write a text, message or card. Try to put some feeling into your message; show that you recognise how terrible this is, that you are sorry, that you are thinking of the family. If you still feel stuck here are some stock phrases it might be useful for you to know: ‘I am so sorry for what’s happened.’ ‘I don’t know what to say.’ ‘I can’t even begin to imagine how awful this is.’ ‘I love you so much.’ ‘I am thinking of you every day.’ ‘I will help in any way I can – please let me know what I can do.’ Longer is better, but don’t say anything you don’t actually mean. You don’t have to make things better or find something positive to say – you can’t and there’s nothing. Just acknowledge the awfulness, and (trite as it seems, and please think about your timing and tone) the fact that it won’t always be so acutely painful.
- If you have a lot to say write a letter. We received a lot of letters and they meant so much. Many letters were from Greg’s friends – describing how much he meant to them, how much they loved him, how he influenced their life in some way. These are now treasured possessions. Others wrote letters to express their shock, horror and sadness for us and for Greg, or letters to express their love for us. These too were a comfort – more love and care that people were showering on us.
- Bring or send something to the family. I have written before about how useful and meaningful it was to be brought a hot meal every night. People also sent or brought flowers; cake; hand cream; candles; plants; ornaments; DVDs; books. Things that could be a distraction, or things that could offer some physical comfort. All were very welcome.
- Visit, especially in the very early days. If you live nearby pop in at intervals. Don’t stay long – the family will probably be exhausted. Having something to drop off is a good excuse to ‘drop in’. Express your sorrow, and your love.
- Offer to help, but only if you mean it. You could make specific offers which you have thought about beforehand, or you could just reassure the person to ask for whatever help they need. For us, we had relatives cleaning our house and ironing our clothes, friends cooking our dinners and even (unasked, don’t go think we were taking advantage now!) planting flowers in our front garden. You could help with young children, with shopping, or with the administrative aspects of death (funeral arrangements, bank accounts, etc.).
- Make a continuing effort. I’ve said before grief can sap all one’s confidence. I wouldn’t have felt able to ask friends if I could visit if they hadn’t been texting me with offers and suggestions for months already. It took me a while to engage with them so being somewhat forceful and persistent (only if you are a good friend I’d say; use some discretion here!) can actually be really important. A grieving person might not feel able to reach out themselves. Give them a hand and reach out for them. Don’t be offended if you’re ignored – just keep trying until they’re ready to accept the offer.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died, or to show your own grief for them.
I hope that all this is helpful and that the next time someone you care about is bereaved you feel more certain of how to behave. Our fear and awkwardness will never disappear because there are no words to really do these situations justice. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I’m sorry that this post is essentially critical in tone. I do understand that choosing to do nothing doesn’t necessarily come from lack of caring, but I think it’s really important that if you choose to do nothing you know what you are choosing. This kind of thing can easily end friendships. You might be afraid of saying the wrong thing: of upsetting the person more. And honestly, yes, people have said things I’ve thought insensitive or thoughtless. People panic and say things without really thinking. I myself am persistently guilty of this. But I can forgive these slips so easily, because these people were at least trying. They made the effort and took that brave but necessary step. I really appreciate that.
The Cooking – Tropical Sponge Pudding
I wanted to do something nice and summery this week to go with the weather. I received a new cookbook for my birthday – ‘John Whaite Bake’. It’s a great looking book and I chose to cook his ‘Tropical Sponge Pudding’, which is served with whipped cream and homemade ‘Passion fruit Curd’ (from the same book).
The sponge has passionfruit, coconut and mango mixed into all the normal ingredients to give a Caribbean feel. I didn’t chose this recipe for a nostalgic reason, but whilst baking I was reminded of one of many enjoyable Greg-related stories. When we were little, Greg around 8 and me around 11, we went on a tour of Venezuela with our Dad. Dad had been living there for a while and he took us to the mountains, the beach, and on a jungle safari. It was an amazing holiday and has given me many lasting memories. One of the places we stayed was surrounded with mango trees and mangoes littered the floor. You could get yourself a fresh one by knocking it down with a stick. Before we set off for the day, a long car trip ahead of us, we picked a few mangoes to eat on the way. A short while later we were sick of the mango and its sticky juice pouring down our grubby hands. ‘Just throw it out the window’ Dad said. But instead of gently tipping the mango out the open window (far too simple) Greg leaned back as far as he could, the mango perched precariously in the palm of one hand, and he thrust it forward enthusiastically. The mango didn’t go out the window – it hit the internal roof of the car instead. Mango exploded everywhere. The car was covered in sticky, sweet-smelling mango pulp and juice, in 30 degree heat. The car was a rental; Dad was not exactly overjoyed with the situation. It’s a good family story.
The sponge here is simple to make. The passion fruit and mango are blitzed to a syrup in a processor, then the rest of the ingredients are added. The sponge was very nice but I actually couldn’t taste the mango or passion fruit which was disappointing. My passion fruit might have been too small, and maybe the mangoes weren’t ripe enough. I don’t know, but flavour wise it could definitely be improved next time. The curd, however, was absolutely delicious. To make the curd you separate the passionfruit pulp from the seeds (by blitzing then straining), then whisk it together with sugar, eggs, and butter over a heat until it thickens. So there are a few stages to the process, but it doesn’t particularly require much skill. I’ve had the curd for breakfast with a croissant (a charmed life, I know) and it’s great – it’s sharp and summery, refreshing but with some passionfruit sweetness. I will definitely be making the curd again, but I’m not sure about the sponge. The two together, with cream, made a decent pudding.